Cigars were originally sold in bundles covered with pigs bladders (with a pod or two of vanilla to improve the smell); then came the use of the large cedar chests, holding up to 10,000 cigars.
But in 1830, the banking firm of H. Upmann started shipping back cigars, for the use of its directors in London, in sealed cedar boxes stamped with the bank's emblem. When the bank decided to go full-scale into the cigar business, the cedar box took off as a form of packaging for all the major Havana brands, and all handmade cigars (though small quantities today are sometimes packaged in cardboard cartons, and single cigars of many brands come in aluminum tubes lined with cedar). Cedar helps to prevent cigars from drying out and furthers the maturing process.
The idea of using colorful lithographic labels, now used for all handmade brands, wherever they come from, started when Ramon Allones, a Galician immigrant to Cuba, initiated it for the brand he started in 1837. As the industry grew in the mid-19th century, so did the need for clear brand identification. Labels or other illustrations also appear on the inside of the lids of many Havana and other brands. Boxes also usually have colorful decorative borders. The cedar box is sometimes referred to as a "boite nature". Paper, usually colored, is normally glued to the interior of the box and is used to cover the cigars it contains.
Finally, after being filled and checked, the box is nailed shut and tightly sealed with a green and white label (a custom dating from 1912) to guarantee that the cigars are genuine Havanas. The practice of using a label, usually printed in similar colors and with similar wording, to seal the box continues today for most handmade brands, Cuban or not.
The Havana seal reads: Cuban government's warranty for cigars exported from Havana. Republica de Cuba. Sello de garantia nacional de procedencia.
Most sizes of the elite Cohiba brand come in varnished boxes, as do one or two of the larger sizes of a handful of other Cuban brands. The H. Upmann Sir Winston size, for instance, is available in a polished dark green box. These polished boxes are usually stamped with the brand symbol, rather than carrying any sort of label other than the government seal.
The form of packaging called 8-9-8 is used for some cigars in the Partagas and Ramon Allones brands. These boxes are polished, have curved edges, and contain 25 cigars, arranged in three layers with eight at the bottom, mine in the middle, and eight on top. Cigars with this sort of packaging are relatively expensive.
Hecho en Cuba has been stamped on the underside of Cuban boxes since 1961, when it replaced the English inscription "Made in Havana, Cuba" Since 1985, they have also carried a factory code and Cubatabacos logo, the latter being replaced with Habanos SA from late 1994.
In 1989 the words Totalmente a Mano were added. Meaning totally by hand, they provide the only cast-iron clue that the cigars are genuinely handmade in the traditional Cuban manner. "Hecho a Mano" or "Made by Hand" can cover a multitude of sins (European Union law permits cigars that are hand finished but machine bunched to be described as made by hand), so the situation can be confusing.
Unless you have complete trust in your cigar merchant when buying older cigars, the only way to play safe is to buy post-1989 cigars with the "Totalmente a Mano" legend. If the box says: "Made in Havana, Cuba," it is almost certainly pre-Revolutionary.
The factory code, on Havana cigars, is stamped in blue - using post-revolutionary factory designations. Thus, for instance:
JM stands for Jose Mart', formerly H. Upmann. FPG stands for Francisco Perez German, formerly Partagas. BM stands for Briones Montoto, formerly Romeo Y Julieta. FR stands for Fernando Roig, formerly La Corona. EL stands for El Laguito. HM stands for Heroes del Moncada, formerly El Rey del Mundo.
Havana boxes also used to be stamped with the color of the cigars contained in them, but this practice has stopped, for the time being at least. Boxes, in the past, often read "claro," but this color classification was frequently inaccurate.
On non-Havana boxes, you might read "Envuelto a mano", which only means hand-packed, but could deceive the unwary. "Hand rolled" means simply (as with Cuban "hand-finished" cigars) that the wrapper is put on by hand, the rest of the cigar is machine-made.
Underneath the boxes of American-produced cigars, there is normally a code: the letters TP, followed by a number identifying the manufacturer. Cigars imported into the United States don't show this code. Some cigars (Dominican Dunhills and the most expensive Macanudos, for instance) refer to a "vintage" on the box. This refers to the year of the tobacco crop, not the year of manufacture. Dunhills currently on sale, for example, are 1989 vintage - made from the Dominican 1989 harvest.